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Dr. Catherine Chatterley

Mila 18 Memorial

Monument for the Fallen and Murdered in the East


Dr. Catherine Chatterley: Thoughts on a Visit to Warsaw

written October 26 and posted November 13, 2012

Warsaw can be a challenging place to visit, particularly when your conference hotel sits at the corner of Muranowska and Stawski Streets, on the border of the former Nazi ghetto.


The ghetto was completely destroyed by the Germans in May 1943 after the uprising so everything in the Muranow district with the exception of two buildings is postwar construction. One walks among rather ugly apartment buildings, all of which are spray painted with graffiti along the first floor apartments, and lots of small cars parked up on sidewalks, looking for the small ghetto memorials on the map of the city. Many of the memorials are unmarked on the ground and are hard to find.

I have always sensed a distinct detachment between the Poles and the events of the Holocaust, which they understand as a German process of destruction that took place on Polish soil. Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah makes this apparent in scene after scene of interviews with Poles about their former Jewish neighbors. This was confirmed for me again in Warsaw. The people of the Muranow walk around these sites as if they are trees or benches—simply part of the scenery. There was neither interest nor hostility, just a distinct feeling of disconnection. They take little notice of the Jews visiting these sites, many of which are loaded with yahrzeit candles, stones, and the odd wreath. The Mila 18 memorial is obviously of great significance to many people because it is literally covered in these symbols of memory and deep connection.


The most disturbing place to visit is the Umschlagplatz Memorial on Stawski Street, which was the ghetto loading area for the more than 300,000 Jews deported to Treblinka between July and September 1942. One feels a need to look at a photo of the actual Umschlagplatz to bring some sense of historical reality to the place. The memorial is built right on the edge of the busy street beside the tracks used by streetcars today. The old Gestapo building, one of two original structures in existence, is across the street and now houses a psychiatric hospital.


The formal memorial complex is the site of the new Museum for the History of Polish Jews and the famous Ghetto Fighter’s Memorial. Behind this is a communist-era memorial (Kniefall von Warschau or Warsaw Genuflection) to Willy Brandt, the West German Chancellor who in 1970 knelt at the Fighter’s Memorial in a spontaneous display of remorse and wiedergutmachung (reparation).


The boundaries of the ghetto are marked in concrete under your feet throughout the Muranow district. There is only one piece of the original ghetto wall left standing and, believe it or not, it is viewed from inside someone’s back yard.


Across from the Ibis hotel in the middle of Muranowska Street is the Monument for the Fallen and Murdered in the East, an extremely imposing and disturbing memorial to the Polish victims of the Gulag system beginning in 1939. The names of Eastern Polish cities are listed on a train track that leads to an open compartment filled with metal crosses—both Catholic and Orthodox. The crosses represent the Polish nation under the USSR, an image Poles have often used to depict their (Christ-like) suffering as a nation. The problem of course is that Jews were also deported to these camps in large numbers. If you look really hard you can find one round gravestone with a Magen David on it amongst the crosses.


Like many of the former Eastern Bloc states, Poland is working to establish itself as a proud, stable European democracy that respects diversity and protects its minorities. Ironically, today’s Poland is the most homogenous state in its long history, but one can see that the process of diversification is not easy. There is no question that in Poland, and in neighboring states, the memory of communism and the crimes of the Soviet Union resonate far more powerfully than those of Nazism. However politically contrived, the crimes of the fascists have been acknowledged and memorialized since the war but not those of the Soviet Union. This history is now being reckoned with and there are many challenges involved.


There are two memory cultures--Nazism and Communism--in this part of the world and they

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